Connecting the crowd: notes on Sudan Vote Monitor
Here’s one thing I’ve learned from working to support Sudan Vote Monitor (SVM): the crowd is always there, but it needs to be connected to be a source. Sounds simple, but things would have gone very differently if more had been done to connect the crowd to SVM.
A few weeks ago, the SBTF mobilised to provide geo-referencing, media monitoring and technical support to Sudan Vote Monitor. Sudan Vote Monitor is an initiative of the Sudan Institute for Policy Research to use connection technologies in support of the independent monitoring of the referendum by local Civil Society Organizations, local media and the general public. SVM aims to support these groups by deploying an Ushahidi platform that receives reports via email, sms and web. All reports are mapped by volunteers and posted to the SVM website in real time. SVM also produces summary blog posts of reports received.
The potential for a citizen reporting initiative in Sudan is strong. In a country with large distances, a system that allows for local monitors and the general public to get their story out can be very powerful. And yet as polls closed for the referendum, the platform had received less than 100 reports. Perhaps this is not a tool that is well suited to the Sudanese context after all? And yet SVM also deployed during the elections in Sudan in April and received over 200 reports from the ground, despite having its shortcode blocked for a number of days. So what was different this time round?
Few reports could be a reflection of a calm referendum with little to report, but that’s probably not the whole story. Lack of preparedness on the ground was a big problem. There was no shortcode this time, only an international long code. The local CSOs and local media whose monitoring work SVM planned to support were not contacted until very close to the referendum. Local CSOs had an established workflow by this point, and integrating SVM’s support at such a late stage proved difficult. Likewise, the local media already had a full program for referendum coverage, and was not given enough time to plan coverage of the SVM message.
This doesn’t mean we should give up on SVM. The referendum vote may be over, but there is still the referendum results, the (separate) Abyei referendum, popular consultations in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan and state elections in Southern Kordofan to come. If separation is the result of the referendum, there will also be an important transition period. In short, over the next six months Sudanese civil society would benefit from a platform that enables citizen reporting from the ground. In fact, as individuals and organizations have found out about SVM, the team has received very positive feedback on the potential for this initiative.
Over the past week, the SVM team has built up connections with a number of local CSOs. One great outcome of deploying for the referendum is that if reports begin to arrive as a result of these new connections, there will already be a tested platform and a group of online volunteers to support it. In the past week, SBTF volunteers have shown an incredible capacity to mobilize quickly and respond flexibly to SVM’s request for support. The GPS team responded to the mapping request from SVM efficiently, but more importantly when workload was low, looked for other ways to enhance the mapping interface – adding boundary layers, mapping out of country polling stations. The media monitoring team organized itself within hours to respond to a last minute request from SVM and are responsible for about half the reports entered in the platform.
This is the SBTF’s first live deployment, and it’s been a great learning experience. Deployment of SBTF teams in a relatively quiet operation gave us a chance to further test the workflows and protocols, and to train more volunteers. The lessons on the importance of preparedness on the ground will carry through to other deployments. SBTF volunteers will most often be working to support locally driven projects. Our focus will remain on providing online support to cover certain tasks – technical set up, geo-referencing, translation, analysis and media monitoring. However, as we learn from deployments, we will be able to discern whether the key steps to preparing for effective crowdsourced reporting of a poll have been fulfilled. We hope that SVM and other similar initiatives will also learn from these experiences.